One of the nice things about being a history nerd is that it’s often easy to find good deals on books. If you’re patient enough, even highly acclaimed books will show up in the bargain section of the book store, as recently happened when I found Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton for $5. If it would have be $10, it would have been more ironic, but whatever. Chernow’s book was published over a decade ago, but has undergone a revival of sorts with the hit musical that was made a couple of years ago.
My interest in Hamilton wasn’t really all that great. Most textbooks focus mainly on the feud between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson during the Washington Administration, which then led to the formation of the first two political parties. If there is any description of Hamilton at all in most texts, it is cursory and often focuses on how full of himself he was. Unfortunately, this is how I perceived him, and I usually don’t really shed a positive light on him when I teach. That should change from here on out.
That’s not to say that Hamilton wasn’t full of himself. He was. But if anyone had good reason to be, it was him. Hamilton was Washington’s assistant during the American Revolution, a delegate at the Constitutional Convention, the first Secretary of the Treasury, a founder of one of the first two political parties, an active abolitionist, a prolific writer, a husband, and a father of eight kids…all by the age of 49 when he died. And all along the way, he predicted, mostly accurately, the future of the country should certain events transpire.
But Hamilton also had a temper, and he would respond to even the smallest of slights to his honor and dignity. It was these negative writings and outbursts that seem to have colored the written portrait of Hamilton that is often used in textbooks. Why do so many of the slaveholding presidents get a favorable treatment in texts, while someone like Hamilton is so often lambasted?
“Slaveholding presidents from the south occupied the presidency for approximately fifty of the seventy-two years following Washington’s first inauguration. Many of these slaveholding populists were celebrated by posterity as tribunes of the common people. Meanwhile, the self-made Hamilton, a fervent abolitionist and staunch believer in meritocracy, was villainized in American history textbooks as an apologist of privilege and wealth.”Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton
They say that history is written by the winners, and in this case it’s true. Jeffersonians cast themselves as common folk who were looking out for the little guy even though most of them lived privileged lives, held others in bondage, and in many other ways were not “common” at all. Jeffersonians, because they held power for so long after 1800, successfully cast Federalists, especially Hamilton, as being wealthy and only caring about the upper class members of society. This is the story that stuck, right up to present day, in many survey texts. The text we currently use for AP US History makes a comment about how Washington “knew” Hamilton could not be trusted, but appointed him treasury secretary anyway because he understood finances so well. In fact, Washington and Hamilton were very close personally right up to Washington’s death with only a few misunderstandings through the years, which will inevitably happen with good friends.
Chernow’s book definitely changed my perception of Alexander Hamilton, and the way I will teach about him going forward. For that, I am grateful.